Early childhood relationship experiences of individuals in treatment for sexually abusive behaviour within the context of the therapeutic relationship ; Qualitative studies of psychological interventions for people who have sexually offended or are at risk of sexually offending : a systematic review

  • William Gordon

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Previous studies have suggested that sexual offenders often experience difficulties in early attachment relationships. Attachment difficulties may be a key factor in the development of sexually abusive behaviour. Research indicates that incarcerated sexual offenders are four times less likely than violent offenders, non-violent offenders and community controls to have a secure attachment style. Moreover, research suggests that treatment for sexual offenders engaging in psychological therapies is beneficial although effect sizes have found to be small. It has been argued that certain therapeutic approaches demonstrate virtually no difference between treated and untreated groups. This study aims to explore the relationship experiences of individuals who have perpetrated sexual abuse against children within a sample of attendees at a community treatment centre. Furthermore, it aims to explore the experiences of offenders in treatment with respect to their early experiences of relationships, as well as the offenders’ perception of self and experience with therapists. An Interpretive Phenomenological approach was utilised, with specific utility of a psychodynamic approach to the analysis, in order to examine relationship experiences of six individuals who had perpetrated sexual abuse against children. I he study found three master themes of offender relationship experience: “Destructive foundations”, "Maladaptive Relationship Patterns” and “Therapy as repairing damage”. The results are discussed in terms of existing theories of the development of sexually abusive behaviour, and implications for therapeutic development are considered. Finally, a critique of method and model used to collate and apply an understanding to the data is made.
Date of Award2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorKate Russo (Supervisor) & David Curran (Supervisor)


  • Child sexual abuse
  • mentalization
  • interpretative phenomenological analysis

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